Mix the melodramatic tension of a Stephen King novel with the social consciousness of Shirley Jackson's macabre classic, The Lottery, and you'll have Janette Turner Hospital's latest work. Oyster opens in Outer Maroo, a dangerous outback town in perpetual drought, peopled by “riff-raff from the Irish potato famines, drifters, wreckage from World War II and Korea and Vietnam, schoolteachers, shopkeepers, holy rollers and evangelicals, small pickings of the social scale.”
Something terrible has happened — is happening — and Hospital sinks the reader into the mirage-like reality of violently tight-lipped townies and a sham prophet named Oyster who has foretold the end of the world. Oyster's sensual mysticism and pockets filled with opal have lured gem-seekers, hippies, and aborigines to his mining commune and unsettled already-tense Outer Maroo. The plot is original and timely, although the book gushes with highbrow melodrama.
A good editor could have tidied up Hospital's biggest errors: stilted pacing and a cumbersome tone. Heavy foreshadowing and narrative fluff defuse the predictable story. Hospital's voice often seems patronizing, like she's read too much literary criticism and underestimates her audience. (Yes, she's a professor of literature.)
Self-defeating impulses aside, Hospital's a formidable writer with an intellect to match: “Below his left eye, Sarah sees… a small imperfection, the faint brown stain of a birthmark, which seems to her to offer a delicate and tantalizing suggestion of vulnerability, of some secret inner layer which is kept armored over by the confident pronouncements of his body, the way he walks, the way he frowns. Or perhaps it is simply evidence that the fizzing intensity he gives off was there from the start, or from before the start.” Details implode into descriptive microcosms, possibilities coexist, time and reason warp in the desert heat. Hospital's psychological intensity successfully portrays the apocalyptic winds blowing around Outer Maroo.
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